Movie Review: The Shape of Water

Master storyteller and director Guillermo del Toro has created an adult fairy tale set against the backdrop of the Cold War era. In a high-security government laboratory, the lives of two janitors, brilliantly played by Sally Hawkins (Elisa) and Octavia Spencer (Zelda), intersect with the lives of a nasty military officer (Michael Shannon) and a sympathetic researcher (Michael Stuhlbarg).

Point of intersection: a secret classified experiment that has captured the interest of the Americans and the Russians.

An amphibious creature—often referred to as the “asset”—is shackled and tested while its future is being debated. The scientists consider the asset to be a biological miracle that could be used to help future astronauts. The military is considering the asset as a potential weapon against the Russians while the Russians are plotting their own takeover of the asset.

Elisa tries to keep her head down as she cleans around the asset’s tank, but she can’t resist taking a peek. There is an instant connection as soon as her eyes connect with the blue orbs of the amphibian (Doug Jones). An inter-species romance develops as Elisa secretly shares boiled eggs and music during her lunch breaks. The two outsiders—a mute woman and an amphibian—form a silent bond.

Emboldened by her love, Elisa decides to liberate the creature. What follows is an unlikely but fascinating tale of escape and the repercussions for all involved.

So much to like here—Sally Hawkins’ ability to express herself without uttering a word, strong performances by all supporting actors, breathtaking underwater visions, expert narration by Richard Jenkins (who also stars as Elisa’s eccentric neighbor), unexpected plot twists, and Guillermo del Toro’s extraordinary vision of a magical world brought to life.

The most-nominated film at this year’s Oscars, The Shape of Water won in four categories: Production Design, Original Score, Director, and Best Picture.


Movie Review: Darkest Hour

Gary Oldman is a shoo-in for an Oscar win. Having already received Golden Globes, British Academy Film, and Screen Actors Guild awards, he is poised to add another statue to his collection.

At first, Oldman didn’t want to play Sir Winston Churchill. He felt that too many great British authors, among them Albert Finney and Brian Fox, had already conquered this role. He also wondered about the heavy makeup and other alterations that would be required.

He needn’t have worried.

His physical transformation—made possible by prosthetics and the expertise of make-up artist Kazuhiro Tsuji—is extraordinary. Add in a heavy, deliberate gait and indistinguishable mumble, and the transformation is complete: Gary Oldman disappears into Sir Winston Churchill.

In a recent interview, Oldman commented: “Churchill was funny as hell…He was leaping around at 65 like he was 20. And he had this cherubic grin on his face, and very often a twinkle in the eye, which you could see even in the old black-and-white.” I was happy to see the lighter side of the curmudgeon emerge in this film.

While Oldman dominates the screen, he is surrounded by an exceptional cast. I was impressed by Kristin Scott-Thomas’s depiction of Clemmie Churchill. Practically minded and unimpressed by her blustering husband, Clemmie takes charge of the household and doesn’t hesitate to reprimand Churchill when he behaves badly. But she also encourages him during challenging times. My favorite line: “You are strong because you are imperfect.”

Ben Mendelsohn delivers an understated but effective portrayal of King George VI. He speaks slowly but doesn’t overplay the King’s speech impediment. His encounters with Churchill provide much of the humor in the film. I couldn’t help chuckling during their first encounter. The king’s awkwardness is evident as he struggles to acknowledge Churchill’s appointment as Prime Minister. When the King suggests a weekly meeting at four o’clock in the afternoon, the following conversation takes place:

Churchill: I nap at four.
King: Is that permissible?
Churchill: No, but necessary.

At one of their lunches..

King: How do you manage all this drinking during the day?
Churchill: Practice.

I highly recommend this dramatic and inspiring story of a pivotal period in world history: four weeks in 1940 during which Sir Winston Churchill rallied the British nation and orchestrated the rescue of over 300,000 Allied soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk.

Movie Review: I, Tonya

I can vividly recall the drama surrounding Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan during the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer. Along with millions of television viewers worldwide, I watched as this sensational scandal unfolded on the ice. I cheered when Nancy earned the silver medal. As for Tonya…I remember her tearful plea for a re-skate after a shoelace snapped and an eighth-place finish.

Back then, it appeared clear-cut: Nancy was the American princess who deserved a gold medal, and Tonya was the rough redneck who didn’t deserve to skate in the Olympics.

But the truth is much more complicated. And there is more than one victim in this story.

In I, Tonya, Australian Director Craig Gillespie explores different truths, told from the perspectives of Tonya (Margot Robbie), her mother LaVona Golden (Allison Jannie), her abusive ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and her bodyguard Eckerd (Paul Walter Hauser).

Alternative truths emerge with back-to-back scenes contradicting each other.

Who is telling the truth?

Who is embellishing?

Who is lying?

In spite of all the ambiguity, I found the movie even more addictive than the actual events.

Horrified, I watched as LaVona physically and emotionally abused Tonya throughout her childhood and adolescence. To survive, Tonya develops an abrasiveness that sets her apart from the budding princesses on the rink. Not even a kind and supportive coach could crack through that hardened shell.

Tonya’s skating ability is extraordinary, and she easily wins in local competitions. But when she moves to larger venues, she loses to less talented skaters. She complains to the judges, only to be told: “We also judge on presentation.”

Her relationship with Jeff Gillooly is fraught with tension and escalating abuse. I wondered why she kept going back to him. The truth is revealed in a telling scene with LaVona. Told that she needs to cobble together a “wholesome American family” to be considered a contender for the Olympics, Tonya approaches her mother for help. LaVona proceeds to berate Tonya, leaving the younger woman no other choice but to reconcile with Jeff.

In the lead-up to the “incident” where Nancy Kerrigan is knee-capped, the truth becomes more obscure. It is clear that Tonya considered Nancy her main competition, but the two women were also friends, rooming together during competitive events. While Tonya focuses on her skating, Jeff and Eckerd set in motion the “letter threats” plot that morphs into a poorly executed physical assault on Nancy.

The tragic ending of this fall from grace is inevitable. Still, it is hard to watch as Tonya Harding receives a harsh punishment that derails all her skating dreams.

Allison Jannie has already received Golden Globes, British Academy Film, and Screen Actors Guild awards for her stellar performance as the abusive stage mother. I wouldn’t be surprised if she won an Oscar. Margot Robbie also deserves an Oscar nod in the Best-Actress category.

A must-see film!


Movie Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Disturbing. Thought-provoking. Unsettling.

But, most of all, riveting.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen as I watched Frances McDormand embrace the role of Mildred Hayes. It is not surprising that she has already captured several Best Actress awards and is a strong contender for an Oscar.

Angry and frustrated after seven months of waiting for the local police to apprehend the man who raped, murdered, and burned her daughter, Mildred rents a trio of billboards with the following provocative messages:


But calling out Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for his incompetence does not endear Mildred to the residents of Ebbing, a fictitious, small town in Missouri. For starters, the Chief is a devoted father and husband in the final stages of pancreatic cancer. When he reminds Mildred of his illness, she responds: “They (billboards) won’t be as effective when you croak.” In spite of her callousness, Mildred does have a grudging respect for the Chief.

Mildred’s relationship with Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist and violent Mama’s boy, is fraught with tension. Easily provoked and goaded by his mother, Dixon doesn’t hesitate to take the law into his own hands. Rockwell’s outstanding performance has already earned him two supporting actor awards.

Mildred’s quest for justice takes several startling twists and turns as the narrative progresses. Significant facts are revealed during arguments with her son and ex-husband, leading us to question Mildred’s motives. Fighting back and fighting harder—regardless of how violent or crazed—dominates the second half of the movie.

In short, there are no true heroes or true villains or clear-cut lessons in this dark comic drama that has garnered seven Oscar nominations.


Movie Review: The Post

This thrilling drama, directed by Steven Spielberg, features The Washington Post and its role in exposing the Pentagon Papers, a massive cover-up of government secrets that spanned three decades and four U.S. presidents.

Meryl Streep embraces her role as Katharine Graham, the first female publisher of a major American newspaper. Surrounded by a sea of imposing men, the widowed socialite appears uncertain and uncomfortable as she struggles to assert herself. In the midst of negotiations to take the family newspaper public, she is reluctant to create waves or upset any of her political friends, among them Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood ).

Tom Hanks plays Ben Bradlee, the ambitious executive editor determined to raise The Post’s national profile. In the summer of 1971, he gets the opportunity to test his journalistic chops and go head-to-head with the New York Times. After the Nixon administration bans the Times from continuing with the leaking of the Pentagon Papers, Bradlee decides to challenge the White House’s unconstitutional efforts. But first, he must persuade Graham.

Torn between Bradlee, her circle of advisors, and political friends, Graham grapples with this decision but eventually takes a stand. I could feel goosebumps rising as her posture straightened and her voice assumed a stronger timbre. One of my favorite scenes: After the Supreme Court decision, Katherine Graham proudly walks past an admiring group of younger women.

A classic underdog tale enhanced by the Oscar-worthy performances of Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.


Movie Review: Battle of the Sexes

Almost forty-five years have passed since the 1973 clash between women’s tennis champion Billie Jean King and self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs. I can still recall the excitement and anticipation around the televised match. Along with millions of viewers worldwide, I watched as both players competed for the winner’s trophy, a cash prize of $100,000, and lifelong acclaim. As for the backstory, I knew very little about their personal struggles and the level of misogyny that existed within the tennis establishment.

Directors Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Ferris have created an entertaining and multi-layered film that explores and exposes those issues while demonstrating equal sympathy for Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell). Both actors deliver stellar performances, worthy of their Golden Globe nominations. Hopefully, Oscar nominations will follow.

A feminist symbol, King didn’t hesitate to point out the disparity that existed within the sport: male winners received eight times as much as their female counterparts. But her complaints fell on deaf ears. In a patronizing tone, retired pro Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) justifies the discrepancy: “Men are more of a draw; the men are more exciting to watch…It’s not your fault. It’s just biology.”

Frustrated, King creates a woman’s pro circuit, sponsored by Virginia Slims Cigarettes. In a later confrontation, King faces down Kramer: “It’s when we want a little of what you’ve got, that’s what you can’t stand.” Off the court, King struggles with her sexuality as she vacillates between her marriage and a blossoming relationship with her hairdresser.

A chronic gambler, Riggs embraces his chauvinistic side, participating in a series of outlandish publicity stunts. Much of the humor in the film comes from Steve Carrell’s excellent portrayal of the over-the-hill hustler who likes to gamble big; Riggs actually wins a Rolls-Royce in one bet. On an ironic note…the chauvinist appears to be living off his wealthy wife.

The face-off in the Houston Astrodome is staged by stunt doubles shot from a distance with occasional glances at the stars. I enjoyed watching the audience reaction and was especially moved by one of the large signs: “Billy Jean for President.”

A well-crafted film that has relevance in our contemporary world.


Movie Review: The Greatest Showman

Inspired by the life of P.T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman celebrates the birth of show business with an empowering storyline, eleven original songs by the Academy-Award-winning lyricists of LaLa Land, and spectacular choreography.

Hugh Jackman dominates practically all the scenes as he assumes the role of the larger-than-life visionary, who rose from humble beginnings to create a worldwide sensation. A long-time fan of Jackman, I found him irresistible as he sang and danced in his red impresario’s coat and top hat. Definitely a contender in the award season ahead.

I was also impressed by the supporting cast.

Michelle Williams delivers an excellent performance as Barnum’s behind-the-scenes wife, Charity. Possessing a strong, clear voice, she comes across as supportive and adventurous, choosing to leave behind a privileged background to follow Barnum on his entrepreneurial journey.

Zac Efron embraces the role of playwright and society boy Phillip Carlyle. An unlikely collaborator, Carlyle is a quick study, stepping in whenever Barnum leaves to pursue other artistic paths. His budding romance with an African-American trapeze artist (Zendaya) provides many tender, bittersweet moments. Their standout performance takes place in the empty circus tent when Zendaya flies on the trapeze as Efron tries to meet her partway, all to the haunting lyrics of “Rewrite the Stars.”

I was moved by the courage of all the “human oddities” that Barnum recruited for his “Museum of Curiosities.” My favorite–Lettie Lutz the “Bearded Lady”–played by Tony-nominee Keala Settle. Cringing from shame, Lettie reluctantly agrees to participate in the show and then uses her powerhouse voice to transform into a fearless Diva.

While the “real” story has darker undertones, director Michael Gracey has chosen to downplay those elements, focusing on the importance of diversity, encapsulated by P.T. Barnum’s philosophy: “Everyone is special, and nobody is like anyone else.”

A class act for the whole family to enjoy.